The Professor

“Maybe the most powerful person is the one who dares to refuse the gift.”

Irina Dumitrescu | Longreads | November 2021 | 3,065 words (17 minutes)

It is the fall of my senior year and I am at a pub with the professor and a group of his students. At one point I look down and notice his hand is on my leg.

“I’m sorry, my hand is on your leg,” he says with a defiant look. “Oh wait, I’m not sorry.”

I am speechless but I give him my firmest glare. He removes his hand and never does it again. That’s that, I think then, I think so many times later. The sexual harassment didn’t work on me. I dealt with it. It left no mark.

At some point that evening, when the professor is out of earshot, one of the students in the master’s program confides in a low voice:

“I don’t really want to be here. But I want a reference letter from him.”

The professor is famous, a genius, or what counts for one in our corner of the world. Everyone knows that his letters open doors to the best PhD programs. I make sure never to ask him for a reference letter. I can’t say why yet, but even then I know. I don’t want to owe him.

That’s that, I think then, I think so many times later. The sexual harassment didn’t work on me. I dealt with it. It left no mark.

***

My father is my mother’s professor at the polytechnic. My father is a brilliant engineer, so brilliant his own professors cannot bear to part with him. They keep him to teach. My mother is a so-so student who fails her first university entrance exam and doesn’t much care for engineering anyway. She looks like Cleopatra though, so he pursues. She likes charming young men who play the guitar, not older lecturers with glasses and superiority complexes. But her family thinks he is a good idea. Solid. Respectable job. He brings her flowers. He brings her parents flowers.

When my mother has appendicitis, she misses three weeks of coursework, and my father sees his opportunity. He will tutor her. He teaches the material, after all. They fall in love and the rest is history.

This is the love story I grow up with, the great romance.

***

The professor can be very supportive. He lets me sit in on his classes, he corrects my Latin over pints of beer. He calls me clever. I come to feel I owe him anyway. After all, his knowledge is more important to me than a letter, a more valuable gift. He reminds me frequently of his early academic achievements, of his many discoveries and books.

The knowledge is precious, and so is the feeling of being in. Allowed in the inner sanctum. Chosen.

But when it comes to writing a paper for him, I can’t even write the first word. None of it is good enough. None of it could be good enough. I am not a genius. I am starting too late. My head does not work the same way. I write nothing and he puts in a grade and I graduate. A year later I send him the paper I owe him from a different country. I do not know if it really earns the A it had been granted in advance.

***

My father is driving me home from the university one evening. I am upset, and he is comforting me by telling me that I can deal with anything. After all, I am like him. I have inherited his doggedness.

“When we want something, we don’t give up until we get it.”

“Is that how you got mom?”

He smiles, satisfied. “Yes.”

“You know, if you had done here what you did there, you would have lost your job.”

“I would have lost my job there too, if she had complained.”

***

The professor quietly disapproves of my father. We spend a lot of time drinking, and when the other students go home I confide in him. Not much, but just enough for him to guess that something is not right. I resent this recognition. I know my father’s faults, and they are for me to be angry over, not for someone else to take seriously.

At moments I have the sly feeling the professor is trying to slip into the paternal role himself. I do not want this either. One father is more than enough.


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When I decide to go away for graduate school, the professor interprets it as my going to work with another scholar. I think I am opting for the opportunities of a prestigious university in another country. He sees it as choosing another mentor. Choosing her over him.

***

My father has my life planned out. I will study medicine, become a doctor, marry, and have kids. I will buy a house in the same city, and it will be large enough for my parents to move in with us. He will spend his golden years gardening in our backyard. I suppose it will be up to my mother, who has not been consulted on this plan, to help with the theoretical grandchildren.

When I get the letter from Yale, everyone is proud. He is too. Still, he can’t help adding one footnote.

“Just think,” he says, “you could have gone to medical school.”

“And lived at home?”

“Yes!” he says, a little too cheerfully.

***

The professor pays for the beer and the students drink it. It is an act of generosity to our thin pocketbooks. In the old epics, the lord gives his followers mead. In return, they promise to die for him in battle. The price of loyalty is a drink.

The service here is not so extreme. No one dies. Instead, there are jokes. The shy student is made fun of for being shy. The handsome one is made fun of for being good-looking. We hear dirty stories about the other faculty. Who has affairs. Who got a racy postcard from a student. Who was caught fucking in the department. When there is nothing salacious to say, we hear which colleague is silly, or desperate, or stupid.

We feel awfully lucky to be around this table, being made fun of for shyness, good looks.

***

My father does not take it well when my mother changes jobs. Before, she brought the harder assignments home for his help. It just made sense: Even long after he was no longer her professor, he was still the better engineer. But now she finds a career she likes, and is good at. He spends a lot of time concerned.

I have been trying to work out what a student learns when a teacher makes a pass, gives chase, falls in love. I read think pieces and they say she learns her only value is sexual. That must be true, often, but it does not quite fit my story here, the story that made me. What am I to think of a teacher who idealizes his pupil, puts years into her improvement, who sees her as his project to build up and refine?

What if the relationship is not erotic at its core, but parental? What if that is more frightening? The teacher desires to make the student in his own image. We know how that creation story goes. The copy is never as good as the original. The point of a copy is to remind us how much better, and irreplaceable, the original is.

In my first year of graduate school I read Shaw’s Pygmalion, the story of a professor of phonetics who teaches a common flower girl to speak like a duchess. I have always loved the myth of the artist entranced with his own work, but this play brings home its cruelty, its impossibility. No matter how much Eliza Doolittle grows under Henry Higgins’ mentorship, she remains an object to him, worth only the five pounds he paid her father for her. She learns to speak, but he never learns to listen.

I manage to hold in my tears until I reach the classroom door.

***

I am writing a book about complicated pedagogical relationships. About how fear and pain can motivate, or destroy. I am writing about desire too, that inconvenient spark between teachers and students anyone from Socrates to Heloise would have known too well. The book lets me pretend that I am writing about history and literature, not about myself or my parents. The book takes many years. I am slow, often blocked. Even after years of thinking about this topic, there are some words I cannot find. When I do find words, they fall short. What is it about words that must always fail?

What is it about words that must always fail?

***

I am arguing with my father. It is summer, and I am to leave for graduate school in two weeks. I am desperately trying to get everything ready. My mother has given me her old car, a sweet two-door sedan with manual everything and no air conditioning. The car has been smoked in, though, so it needs a proper cleaning. But I am working full time. And my mother is working full time.

The person who is not working full time is my father.

What my father is doing is sitting in the basement and playing computer solitaire for hours on end. Listening to classical music. Cooking up ways to make money that can’t be spoiled by insulting your boss.

I call him from my office desk and ask him if he will take the car in to be cleaned professionally. I will pay, but I don’t have the time to do it myself. He tells me it is a waste of money. I tell him it will be a waste of my money. The argument goes on, as he explains to me why I should not want this basic thing that I want.

I am often angry with my father, but this fury is new. It is in my chest, hot and bulging, as though it might choke my throat from the inside, as though it might explode through the top of my head and melt the roof. I yell at him and slam the phone down, and in that second the lights go out. I am certain that it was my rage that did it. I must have overloaded the grid. I burned the lights out.

A co-worker drives me home, and the streets are slow-moving, blocked. We hear over the radio that the entire northeast is under blackout. During the hours we spend on the road, I dread seeing my father again. That evening, deprived of our usual distractions, of music and television and computer solitaire, my parents and I sit down and talk. My mother and I are trying to break through to him and not having much luck.

At one point in the evening, when my father is out of earshot, I push the words that had long stuck in my throat past my teeth.

“Sometimes I don’t understand why you don’t just divorce him.”

“And what would you say if I did?”

“I would be sad but I would understand.”

Over the decade to come, my father will imagine himself the victim of many betrayals from me and my mother. He will read conspiracies into every glance, fabricate stories based on impossible events, overwrite the past. He will forget his own threat of divorce to her. He will forget that he countered peace offerings with lectures.

But this one conversation, as the city darkens unhindered, it feels unfaithful. The beginnings of freedom feel like treachery.

***

When I come home from graduate school, I make a point of visiting the professor. Each time. I am fond of all those who have taught me, but this is more regular. Is it that I feel gratitude more powerfully if I think I can grant it freely? Or am I still hoping for recognition?

Maybe I am trying to prove my loyalty. I left but I always come back. I do not know it yet, but this is better training for children than for adults.

On one visit I tell the professor how worried I am about my book. If I do not finish it and find a publisher in time, I will be out of a job.

“Do you want a contract? I can have my secretary get you a book contract by tomorrow.”

I know this is not the usual procedure. I need to finish the book, write a proposal, submit the proposal. The press must have it evaluated by experts. Even with connections to smooth the way, there is a process. I say no to the book contract, and try to sound cool about it. I have to do it the hard way.

One of the things I have learned from reading medieval literature is the price of a gift. In the old epics, kings distribute riches to their guests and followers. Rings, hauberks, steeds. The anthropologists tell us the power of the gift: Give something to someone, and it forces them to give you something back. Give them an object too magnificent ever to be repaid, and they will remain in your debt. You will have demonstrated your might. The most powerful person is the one who can give something that can never be paid back.

Maybe the most powerful person is the one who dares to refuse the gift.

***

I finish my book. I am tenured and a professor in my own right, like my father. I work in a group that researches power. We talk about the usual things. Who can demand obedience. The authority to levy taxes and armies. The symbols of kings and emperors and pharaohs. I do not find the words here for what happens between teachers and students, parents and children, lovers, and friends.

My husband reminds me that I read Foucault in graduate school, and he taught me another kind of power. Not top-down, by command, but a force that is everywhere and invisible. The discipline we learn from the world around us, making us obedient even when we are on our own. A force that shapes who we are.

“That’s why facing it is so hard,” I say.

“Yes, because it’s in you.”

***

My father is upset with me. I am not calling enough. I am not calling because I have a baby, and the exhaustion has pushed me to the edge of survival. Each day’s challenge consists of: keep baby alive, keep myself alive, do not murder the neighbors who throw parties loud and late. But my sin is that I am not calling.

My father thinks I am not calling because my mother has won me away from him.

“It is the natural course of things for parents to die before their children, so consider me dead,” he writes.

I consider him dead.

A few months later, my consideration falters, and I send him pictures of his grandson. He takes this as an attempt to reconnect, which I suppose it is. He sends me a long list of events over the past 10 years that I am to explain to his satisfaction if I want a relationship.

I tell him what I really think.

He tells me what he really thinks. About me. About my mother, how pure she was when she was young, how vulgar she became as she aged.

I consider him dead.

***

I am visiting home, which is not home anymore and was hardly home when it was home. I visit the professor and his wife with my baby. They are both tender, playful. The professor smells the top of the baby’s head and says how wonderful it is to smell a baby’s head. From now on I will make a special point of smelling babies’ heads, at the very top, where the smell is the best.

My father has made himself dead by this point, so I do not visit him. He never meets his only grandchild. I did not, after all, explain things to his satisfaction.

***

That the professor does not behave himself is common knowledge. Everyone talks about it and yet no one talks about it. Including me. Why talk about something everyone knows?

Over the years, I notice something funny. I hear stories of women dropping out, women scarred. I do not know any of them. The ones I know are men, men who mysteriously falter, then stop.

I argue with a friend whose confidence seeps away over his years of working with the professor. I think I see a connection between his loss of faith and the way the professor treats his students. Maybe all those jokes about them, about the scholars they might become, left their mark. He denies it. The professor is great. It is his own fault that he stopped being able to do the thing he had been doing well for so long.

Sometimes I think men would rather suffer the whole burden of their failures than admit that someone has the power to hurt them.

But only some men.

***

I am at a conference with the professor. He cites my paper in his talk, the paper I could only write for him once I left. It is going well.

That evening we have drinks with the conference organizer and his graduate students. I ask the professor what software he used for a certain project. He gets angry.

“Why should I tell you? You went to study with her. You’re part of her school now.”

“I am just as much your student.”

“Everyone wants something from me. You do the work yourself.”

“I am asking about methods, not results.”

“Well, I did the work.”

I remember something.

“You had a graduate student do the computer stuff.”

“Well, I paid for the work.”

The local students look horrified, as does our host. I go to the bar bathroom, close the door, and start crying. I wonder at my ability to reproduce patterns, to find teachers to continue the drama my parents began. Then I wipe my face and go back to the table, doing my best to seem untouched.

Later, we call a cab for the professor, who is stumbling.

“I can’t let anyone love me,” he says softly. I give him a hug and fold him into the car. The next time he emails he seems to remember nothing. I answer politely, warmly even.

He did not ask me to consider him dead. But I do.

 

***

Irina Dumitrescu is an essayist and scholar of medieval literature.

Editor: Krista Stevens
Copy Editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands